Diplomat-scholar sizes up UN's role

In the summer of 1961 Secretary-General Dag Hammarskj"old needed someone to spearhead United Nations peacekeeping efforts in the Congo, then torn by civil war. The man he chose was an Irish diplomat and scholar who had earned a reputation as a skilled negotiator. Conor Cruise O'Brien's subsequent activities in the Congo, including the ordering of a UN offensive against the Katangan rebels, made him a magnet for controversy. And the controversy was only fanned when, on being released from his UN assignment in December of 1961, Dr. O'Brien wrote his own account of events in the Congo -- an account that directly challenged the official version.

The Congo episode was a dramatic peak, perhaps, in some four decades spent shunting between the worlds of politics and academe. Dr. O'Brien served for many years in the Foreign Service of his native Ireland, worked at the UN both as a representative from Ireland and as an assistant to the Secretary-General, and has more recently been a member of the Irish Senate.

Wedged among his political and diplomatic assignments were stints at the University of Ghana, New York University, and the University of Dublin. Currently he has settled in, if that phrase can ever be appropriate, for a year as a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College here.

In the years following his experience as a UN diplomat in the Congo, Dr. O'Brien wrote two books on the international organization, and he continues to have firm views on the subject. With an eye to the 40th anniversary of the UN's founding and with an ear to the continuing debate over its effectiveness as a peacekeeping tool, Dr. O'Brien shared those views in a Monitor interview.

Looking back to the organization's beginnings, he says, ``I think the idealism and the hopes founded on idealism were deceptive, and that . . . from the beginning the superpowers were largely in an antagonistic relationship.

``And the body could not fulfill the hopes that were centered on it in 1945 except with superpower consensus, which has seldom prevailed.''

He sees moments over the past 40 years when the interests of the United States and the Soviet Union converged -- their joint initial support for the effort to end the secession of Katanga from the Congo, for instance. But such moments have been ephemeral indeed, he says.

The reality of the UN, Dr. O'Brien wryly observes, is that it ``is not an organization that is capable of finding, still less of imposing, solutions that count.''

But that doesn't mean the former UN official has given up on its usefulness. ``It is a place and a set of techniques to which powers can resort when they find themselves getting into trouble, when people are on the brink of a confrontation which maybe both sides don't really want . . . . The UN, in those conditions, provides first of all a place where people can let off steam. That's to say, where you make a strong verbal reaction which releases you from the necessity of doing very much.''

That's an argument critics of the UN are prone to debunk. The Heritage Foundation, a research organization known for its conservatism, has concluded that the UN is ``more of a pressure cooker'' than a safety valve. The foundation's 1984 publication ``The US and the UN -- A Balance Sheet'' argues: ``Far from cooling passions, the techniques of name-calling and lying are intended to mobilize the General Assembly on the side of the speaker, to discredit and isolate adversaries, and to cultivate climates of opinion inhospitable to rational argument.''

Dr. O'Brien counters, ``The United States made use of the UN in that way over the Hungary crisis in 1956.'' And, he says, don't discount what may be going on backstage while a speaker is venting his national passions before the General Assembly. ``While the steam is being let off onstage, the parties to an incipient conflict -- who would find it otherwise difficult to meet and talk -- can meet . . . in the corridors.''

Maddening as the sometimes florid rhetoric may be to those subjected to it, its face-saving function is ``tremendously useful,'' according to Dr. O'Brien. Just remember the Cuban missile crisis, he argues, and how the Soviets used the UN forum to help back as gracefully as possible away from confrontation.

Dr. O'Brien emphasizes what he terms two chief accomplishments of the organization: its ``universality,'' achieved with the admission of mainland China, and its longevity, having chugged and sputtered along for nearly half a century. Those two things have already moved it far beyond its predecessor, the League of Nations, he says.

Does Dr. O'Brien see a lessening of US commitment to the UN, tied to a rise of political conservatism in the United States? ``I don't think so,'' he says. ``I think the US, like other countries, sees in the UN the kind of utility I've described.'' -- 30 --

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